Teachers have above-average burnout rates compared to other professions, and the occupational stress among teachers has increased significantly over the last decade. High-pressure workdays, long commutes, changing policies, not enough sleep or exercise, and simply trying to make ends meet all contribute to increased stress in the workplace. The accumulated stresses of everyday work life can damage your health in irreversible ways and also affect your ability as an educator.
You can’t be an effective teacher when you’re riddled with stress. Stress brings tense, negative energy to your class space. Students can feel it the moment they enter the room. Additionally, stress will shorten your patience, skew your judgment, and weaken your ability to establish influential relationships with your students. The good news is that no matter who you are or what you teach, simple habits can help to reduce stress from your professional life and change the way you teach.
1. FOCUS AND PLAN
Focus is the difference between top performers and everyone else. You need a moment (and only a moment) before each workday to zero-in on what you need to do to be your best teaching self. Visualize your day ahead of time. Whether it be on your way to work or in the quiet moments before your students arrive, mentally rehearse your day ahead. Think through your classes or lessons. See yourself following your plan. Once the vision is in place, lock in and focus on your immediate objective. This practice will result in greater decisiveness, confidence, and joy.
2. JUST SAY NO
Every teacher I know could benefit from utilizing this small but mighty two-letter word. Understand, this is not suggesting one never accepts extra responsibilities or extra work. But standing your ground and maintaining your personal boundaries are healthy approaches that only you control. Saying no can be as simple as temporarily passing over an added workload. For others, saying no may look like stepping away from what’s allowing you to procrastinate. It may be saying no to commiserating with negative colleagues. Saying no can feel uncomfortable at first, especially if it’s not a regular part of your vocabulary. But once you take a stand, you’ll be rewarded with time to focus on what really matters.
Many educators are fired up about things over which they have little to no control, such as new policies, trend curriculums, etc. The stress is very real, but to no real benefit. In the business of education, there are always news ideas coming down the pipeline. It’s far less stressful to accept them and start directing your thoughts to how you can make these new things work for you. I’ve found you can take just about anything and make it your own or find a workaround. And lest we forget, if it isn’t something you absolutely have to do, ignore it altogether.
4. SHIFT RESPONSIBILITY
One common trait in nearly all overworked and stressed-out teachers is the willingness to take on what could be (or should be) their students’ responsibilities. They teach a directed lesson and then fail to fully shift the responsibility of doing the work or practice to their students. This is often as simple, but as disruptive, as interrupting the learning process with additional reminders, clues, and suggestions. They rush to the aid of any student showing the slightest bit of struggle and disrupt their learning process by re-teaching what they just taught moments before. This might feel like what good teaching looks like, but it’s not. Micromanaging produces learned helplessness, dissuades listening, and encourages dependence on the educator rather the student. On the teacher’s end, this educational approach compiles unnecessary stress, especially when things don’t go exactly as planned. The simple fix: stick with the teaching and let your students learn.
One of the most powerful and effective ways to ease stress is fortunately also one of the simplest. It’s called the “decide-first method.” Before the bustle of the busy workday begins, create for yourself a moment of peace. Shut the door and give yourself just a moment of silence. Take a deep breath and clear your mind. Make the important conscious decision that, no matter what happens, you are going to remain calm, keep your cool, and pursue through. It sounds overly simple if not poetically optimistic, but it works. The first time will seem like a revelation, but if you run through the routine every day, being calm and composed will become who you are.
Brandon Dittgen teaches instrumental music at Milford Exempted Village Schools in Cincinnati, Ohio. His duties include teaching band grades 6–12 and coordinating all percussion studies. He holds a Masters of Arts in Education degree from the University of the Cumberlands and a Bachelor of Music Education degree from Morehead State University. Brandon serves on the PAS Health and Wellness Committee.